When school board member Scott Stone proposed eliminating the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in Carroll schools next year, he caught just about everybody off guard -- other board members, the public and school officials.
Once the motion was on the table, the five-member board unanimously scrapped the holiday -- along with what Carroll educators call Presidents Day -- with little discussion. The latter holiday honors George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
It's that seeming element of surprise that has so angered and offended members of Carroll's small African-American community and prompted them to call for the board to reverse its decision.
"It's totally unconscionable that a body of five people, nonminorities, could say and could feel that this would be better for students and not have gone into the community and asked the question," said the Rev. Robert E. Walker, pastor of Union Street Methodist Church in Westminster.
"It seems like the idea was to slide it through so the outcry would be minimal," he said.
The outcry has been loud and clear since the board's action last week.
Critics have verbally attacked board members, saying the decision smacks of racism and insensitivity. A group working to restore Carroll's NAACP chapter is planning protests. Suggestions have included a candlelight vigil and a march.
Stone said he has repeatedly expressed his opinions on the King holiday and that he was not trying to avoid public scrutiny. However, given the reaction to the board vote, Stone said, it would have been better to give notice and allow for public comment.
"Hindsight did reveal that it would have been better received by the community had that course of action been followed," he said. "Emotions and feelings of the heart seem to be significantly stronger than any rationale that I can offer to support my position."
Repercussions from the vote have forced board president Gary Bauer to re-examine his beliefs.
"I understand more about where the African-American community is coming from," he said. "It's a real deep cultural thing with them, and I'm starting to see it from their side and how important it is."
New vote considered
Bauer said he may ask for a reconsideration of the vote at next month's board meeting.
"I think it's becoming clear to us there are some underlying issues we were not aware of," he said.
The board's action makes Carroll the only Maryland school system to require students to attend classes on the day honoring the slain civil rights leader.
Board members bristle at the suggestion that their decision to keep pupils in school on the King holiday stemmed from racism. Students will develop a greater appreciation of King by being in school, they said, instead of spending the holiday at the mall or in front of the television.
"We need education to eliminate the problem of racism," said board member Susan Krebs. "To give kids a day off to go shopping is not the way to do it."
Bauer said Stone told him a couple of days before Wednesday's meeting that he intended to call for a vote to cancel the King holiday. But the other board members said Stone's plan was a surprise.
"The first I knew there was going to be a push for it was that morning," said Joseph D. Mish, a longtime supporter of keeping children in school on the King holiday.
Two years ago, Mish said, he had planned to bring the matter up for a vote, but then-Superintendent Brian L. Lockard asked him to withdraw it.
Mish said he objects to the idea of closing schools to recognize historical figures. He predicted that feminists will soon support a national holiday for "somebody like Eleanor Roosevelt, or maybe as a long shot Harriet Tubman. Pretty soon we're going to honor more and more."
"If I understand Dr. King's life, his point was that black people should be treated as any other human beings," he said. "They had rights not because they were black, but because they were human beings."
Board member Ann Ballard said she was "flabbergasted" when the King holiday came up for a vote.
"I didn't speak the whole meeting because I was so taken aback by it," she said.
However, Ballard supported the motion.
"I still think the children would be better served in school because I don't think children are appreciating the holiday playing video games in the mall," she said.
Stone said he had informally discussed the King holiday with other board members before Wednesday's meeting to gauge their feelings. He said he was not certain there were enough votes for the motion to pass.
Ralph Blevins, president of the Carroll County Education Association, was caught off guard by the board's action. In a proposed calendar released in December and developed by the school staff, schools were closed on the King holiday and Presidents Day.
Blevins was among a few people who urged the board at previous meetings to close schools on the King holiday.
"The way they did it was completely wrong," Blevins said. "Mr. Stone could have known that doing it this way would not let the citizens of a community get a reaction in before the board vote."
'Offended and embarrassed'
Critics of the board's action on the King holiday say it strengthens the perception that there is an atmosphere of intolerance in Carroll, where minorities make up 3 percent of the county's population of 150,000.
"Carroll County thinks it's a little island," said Vicki Brill, an African-American who has lived in the county for 15 years. "I'm offended and embarrassed to even live here."
Phyllis Black, a consultant hired by the Carroll school system to help recruit minority teachers, also has condemned the board's action. Now she's trying to find something positive in it.
"This was a setback," she said. "But it's also making the minority community aware that they've got to become more active."
Pub Date: 2/14/99